The Urgency Of Childhood Trauma & School-Based Mental Health Programs

[Ed. Note: Every day at Anacostia High School, social worker Nathan Luecking is on the front lines of treating trauma caused by community violence that is, sadly, a common experience for many children in DC. The mental health supports that Luecking and other social workers provide in our schools are both necessary to help our kids and very effective. Yet, despite the urgent need, only now does DC have a way to fully fund those services. Read on for a better way forward.]

by Nathan Luecking

In 2018, Washington, DC, saw a chilling increase in violence against children: 13 children dead, and dozens more children injured. One of the victims was 15-year-old Gerald Watson, a student at Anacostia High School, where I work as a school social worker. His loss rattled our students, staff, and families to the core. For most children in America, losing a friend to gun violence is a traumatic event that could have mental health consequences well into adulthood. But for many children in Washington, DC, trauma is a regular occurrence.

All of which is why DC must immediately fund a $51 million budget request to the mayor from David Grosso for school mental health services. That $51 million ask is broken down into three pots:

–$1 million for assessing needs and resources
–$8.3 million for trauma-informed training
–$42 million for professional mental health staff in schools

Together with the $3 million already allocated for this (and not yet spent), the new infusion would fund comprehensive expansion of school-based mental health programs across all DC’s publicly funded schools, including expanding the District’s existing (and effective) school-based mental health program. Moreover, the total of $54 million would likely meet the requirements of the South Capitol Street Act–for the first time since that law’s passage in 2012.

Trauma, and the need for school-based mental health programs, unfortunately go hand in hand in DC. Since Gerald’s passing, for instance, Anacostia High School has suffered the following losses: a beloved alumnus, age 21, shot and killed; a 12th grader shot (and survived in ICU); and a shooting at a crowded bus stop used by Anacostia students, injuring 5, including a small child. This spree of violence shadows the 1-year anniversary of the murder of 14-year-old Steve Slaughter, a Kramer Middle School student with strong ties to the Anacostia student body.

And that’s just my school’s community.

Expand that out to many more communities and more than 90,000 students, a significant portion of whom are deemed at risk of academic failure due to less than ideal circumstances beyond their control, including trauma—and you have a major crisis in our public schools.

The lasting impact of childhood trauma has been well documented. Numerous studies of both behavior and physiologic development suggest that being raised in an environment with exposure to repeated trauma conditions the body and mind to survive in the presence of pervasive danger. Children exposed to pervasive trauma often become hyper-aware of their surroundings, anxious, irritable, unable to sit still, unable to concentrate, aggressive, and hyper-vigilant. These traits are essential for survival–but they don’t always lend themselves to a structured classroom environment.

School-based mental health treatment is necessary to treat the trauma, grief, and loss caused by community violence that many children in DC experience regularly. Community violence isn’t just limited to shootings, but includes sexual assault, robberies, physical assaults, or other weapon attacks perpetrated in public spaces, often times occurring suddenly and without warning. Children are more likely to receive mental health treatment if delivered in school, and school-based mental health interventions work to reduce discipline problems, course failure, and school absences. So convincing is the evidence linking trauma to educational outcomes that DCPS and many charter LEAs have invested in trauma-informed training for teachers and staff. Additionally, many school districts are embracing trauma-informed practices as a tool to help close the achievement gap.

We have long had a great path forward to help our kids who are experiencing trauma–we just have to fund it.

For instance, District lawmakers have passed aggressive legislation to curb violence and trauma in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, these laws are often not fully funded or implemented. Most notable for our schools is the South Capitol Street Memorial Act, which called for the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) to expand its School Mental Health Program (SMHP) by 2016 into every DC publicly funded school, as a violence prevention measure.

This law was named for a mass shooting along DC’s South Capitol Street in 2010, when the then-19-year-old perpetrator shot into a crowded party, killing 5, including a 17-year-old . The perpetrator was identified as having “unmet behavioral health needs” that if addressed, may have prevented the tragedy. A 2005 Harvard University study concluded that adolescents who are exposed to traumatic gun violence like what occurred along South Capitol St. are twice as likely to perpetrate violence themselves. The conclusion was clear: if we treat trauma early in life, we have a better chance of decreasing violence in the future.

Under Mayor Gray, the South Capitol Street Act reached only about 30% of DC’s public schools, deploying some 60 mental health clinicians to schools with large populations of students exposed to violence and other trauma. Following the election of Mayor Bowser in 2014, DBH expansion stalled, and the school mental health program stagnated. For the next several years, the South Capitol Street Act would go unfulfilled, much to the detriment of DC families. (There is even a class action lawsuit to address the inadequate treatment of mental health issues in some DC children.)

In 2017, when it became clear that Mayor Bowser was not fulfilling the law, council members Grosso and Gray formed a task force, in partnership with the mayor, to strategize how to expand mental health treatment into all our public schools. Led by then-DBH Director Tanya Royster, the task force drew up a few different funding scenarios for SY2018-19. The most widely accepted options were 1. hiring five term-limited DBH clinicians to oversee expansion of 33, for-profit, mental health service providers at a cost of $3 million in grants or 2. simply expanding the existing SMHP, as stated in the South Capitol Street Act, by adding 33 new clinicians for $3.6 million.

The mayor chose option 1 and hand-selected a series of for-profit mental health service providers to receive the $3 million in grants. Yet, to date, no grants have been awarded, and no additional mental health clinicians have been deployed, much to Grosso’s unhappiness.

In contrast, despite not receiving expansion funding, in SY2018-19 the existing SMHP has filled 11 vacancies in 13 schools, providing direct therapy services to over 165 students and prevention services to hundreds more, seemingly in accordance with option 2.

Now, fast forward to SY19-20–and imagine what could be done with the proposed $54 million in funding for school-based mental health programs!

By funding that budget request, the mayor can efficiently use tax dollars to increase academic outcomes, reduce community violence, and treat mental illness. Under this budget proposal, the cost of a clinician would be covered in the DBH budget, so additional school mental health clinicians won’t come at a cost to individual schools or LEAs. Currently, any mental health clinician employed at a DCPS school comes out of that schools budget, as is the case for many LEAs.

It is unclear where in the overall budget these funds will come from. However, Grosso has committed his entire FY20 budget submission toward increasing the number of mental health clinicians in DC schools. I am by no means a budget expert, but in a city of such great wealth and means like DC, it is a question of priorities, not resources, to fully fund school mental health expansion.

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